Arizona Wildcats coach Sean Miller knows the Wildcats will take some time to adjust without the injured Brandon Ashley in the lineup.
Ashley is out for the remainder of the season with a foot injury, forcing Miller to start Rondae Hollis-Jefferson in Ashley’s place in Arizona’s 67-65 victory over Oregon at McKale Center Thursday night.
The void of Ashley’s 27.7 minutes a game resulted in extended minutes for the starters — despite foul problems — and reserve guard Elliott Pitts playing a season-high 12 minutes.
Pitts played only 41 minutes previously this season.
Arizona is not accustomed to this rotation and it showed with the Wildcats struggling with a shooting percentage of only 40 and getting out-rebounded by Oregon 40-35.
“You have to understand that you do something for five months a certain way, and it changes, you don’t have it perfect right away,” Miller told ESPN’s Jeff Goodman after the game. “Tonight was about will. It was about determination.
“For a while there, it didn’t look good, but we found a way.”
Nick Johnson (39 minutes) and Hollis-Jefferson (34) also logged a season-high in playing time. Kaleb Tarczewski tied a season-high with 35 minutes.
Aaron Gordon (27 minutes) would have played more without foul trouble and having to leave to the locker room temporarily in the second half with a sprained ankle. T.J. McConnell (28 minutes) had three personal fouls in the first half, which kept him from playing a full game.
Hollis-Jefferson’s 14 points and 10 rebounds — his first collegiate double-double — helped make up for the loss of Ashley statistically and emotionally. He sparked the Wildcats late with his hustle for rebounds and working to get free near the basket.
Miller called Hollis-Jefferson a “warrior” and “stud”.
“Rondae’s a big reason why we’re 22-1,” Miller told Goodman. “Clearly his role changes and I think he’ll tell you from a defensive perspective he’s in on more plays. He’ll grow though. He’ll get better.”
Hollis-Jefferson drew some inspiration from the fallen Ashley, telling the sophomore that he would try his best to fill his shoes.
“I gave it my all and the great effort showed,” Hollis-Jefferson told Goodman while glancing at the scoreboard with a smile.
“We worked all year for this. It starts in practice. We try our best. We play hard. Our coach, he believes in us. He trusts us 100 percent. You’re going to mess up. You’re going to make mistakes. But you have to keep fighting and hope things happen for the best.”
Miller only played seven players while Dana Altman utilized 11 but the Wildcats showed more chemistry, especially in the last four minutes with a convincing 9-0 run, to pull out the victory.
Arizona’s grit enabled the Wildcats to overcome the lineup change, injuries and foul trouble with Gordon, McConnell and Hollis-Jefferson, getting outrebounded, and Johnson’s continued shooting woes (6-for-30 from the field, including 0-for-10 from three-point range) in the last two games.
Without Ashley, this will be a season of survival for Arizona and the Wildcats snatched a victory with that daunting challenge.
“I’m just glad we won because now we have eight conference games left instead of nine,” said Miller, whose team leads the Pac-12 with a 9-1 record. “I think that’s what we really have to do … move one day at a time and continue on our quest to become better.”